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tv   LIVE U.S. Marines the Vietnam Wars Tet Offensive  CSPAN  January 25, 2018 7:00pm-8:32pm EST

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this tuesday is the 50g9 anniversary of the start of the vietnam war's tet offensive where vietcong and north vietnamese attacked across south vietnam. we're going live to hear from vietnam veterans who will look back at the battle of hue, where some of the most intense fighting took place. mark bowden will join the discussion. he is the author of "hue 1968." we are live.
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>> we're waiting for this discussion on the vietnam war's tet offensive to get under way. participating in the discussion tonight, mark bowden, the author of "hue 1968," former stars & stripes combat photographer john olson and three marines who fought in hue.
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stand up for freedom, knowing we'll be free one day. ♪ >> i always think of the newseum as the home of freedom. >> i don't know where this nation would be. i don't know where i would be today without the guarantees of the first amendment. >> there's a war against information. there's a battle over who controls information. >> what a democracy should do in talk about it. >> engage in the news. be a citizen of the world. give a damn.
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♪ >> we must come to see with one of our distinguished jurists that justice too long delayed is justice denied. >> religion and our beliefs are part of people's core identities. >> very interesting to feel that you are protected by law and you have support to pursue your life freely. ♪ good evening, everyone. welcome to the newseum's
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theater. i'm chair of the moo newseum. we're here to mark the marines in tet, the battle that changed the vietnam war. this is almost the 50th anniversary of the tet offensive, which, if you're a millennial, i'll explain it to you, was a coordinated offensive by vietcong and north vietnamese troops on more than 100 towns, cities and american and south vietnamese military facilities. it began on the night of january 30th, 1968. and i remember it well, because i was an intelligence clerk with mac fee at the time. our exhibit showcases the work of john olson who, like me, was a young army draftee. he was a photographer for "stars & stripes," the
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military's daily newspaper. and he spent three days in february with the marines as they took back the city of hue, in what turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the vietnam war. this innovative exhibit features 20 large format photographs and ten tactile versions of these photos with touch activated sensors that trigger interviews. this enables blind and low-vision visitors to experience the images through touch and sound and the newseum is the first museum in the united states to host a major tactile exhibit designed for these visitors. you can really thank john olson for that, because it was his idea. each and every day at the newseum, we highlight the risks journalists around the world take to report the truth. john certainly put his life and
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work at risk, taking these pictures. so, this exhibit is another apt example of what journalists are willing to do to bring the world the news. our mission at the newseum is to help the public and the media better understand one another, which is certainly needed in today's society. and to educate visitors about the value of free and fair press and the five freedoms of the first amendment. since we opened our doors here on pennsylvania avenue nearly ten years ago, we've welcomed more than 7 million visitors and our digital education programs reached 10 million students around the world every year. i would like to take a moment to thank all of our visitors, our newseum members and friends of the first amendment society to help make these programs possible. this exhibit is a partnership with "stars & stripes," distinguished newspaper which i tried every day to read when i was in vietnam.
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3d photo works, which converts 2d images into 3d tactile and support from nikkon and the national federation of the blind. along with john, our panel features three veterans who all fought in the battle of hue and are featured in the exhibit. a.b. grantham, myron harrington, and brian thompson. our moderator is the best-selling author, mark bowden, whose latest book is "hue 1968: a turning point of the american war in vietnam." i would like to take a moment to acknowledge everyone who served in the vietnam war. it was a divisive war and no one emerged completely unscarred. first i understand there are other veterans of the battle of hue in the audience. would you please stand up?
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[ applause ] and now would all the veterans of the vietnam war please stand up? i'll just raise my hand. thank you. that was a quite different reception than what we got back in 1969. before we get to our other speakers, we would like to present some of the audio clips in the exhibit, which highlight the stories of three of our vietnam veteran panelists. would you please roll the audio clips? >> the goal of every marine officer is to lead marines in combat and i felt compelled that i had to do that. we moved in probably late on the
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afternoon of the 14th. it was just absolutely utter devastation, burnt out trucks and bodies on the road, the stench of death was there all the time. and that night at our briefing, major thompson turned to me and he said tomorrow delta company will take the tower. he didn't say try to, we'll give it an effort or whatever. he said tomorrow delta company will take the tower and i said aye-aye, sir. we'll do it. before we moved out in the attack i went off and basically gave up my life saying i don't know how i'm going to make it through this and i just asked that i not let my marines down and that i do the best that i could do. as we were mounting the assault, sergeant tom's joined us and wrote 10 or 12 marines. that gave us the impetus that we
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were able to get up on to the wall and take the tower. with approximately 120 marines, when we attacked the tower we suffered 40% casualties. the end of the battle there were 39 of us that were still standing, made it through unscathed. >> i was the battalion commander of the first battalion, saw about six marines being hit. went down. and my shotgun, a young marine, responsible for being my messenger, my bodyguard and any way he could help me. the one i had before was killed the day before, who was like a son. well this new kid, good-looking young man, he grabbed me and threw me on the deck and covered
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my body with his. and i asked him, i said, son, why did you do that? why did you throw me down and cover me with your body? he said, sir, sergeant major told me that if something happened to you, he would have my ass. that's the way marines were. i said okay, let's get out of here. he was first man out of the room and he was hit and killed immediately. so that wonderful young man, i really didn't get to know him, but i'll never forget him. >> i remember them lifting me off the floor and putting me on a door that they used for a stretcher. i remember them putting me on the tank. i could hear it running and i could smell the diesel. and it was the roughest ride i've ever had in my life. when we got back to triage, somebody said this one's not
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dead yet. and i remember think iing, that poor son of a bitch must be hit bad. i didn't know they were talking about me. after that, i remember being medivac'd and i remember them putting me up on a table, stripping all my clothes off and the doctor started cutting me open on the side with a knife and that hurt really bad. and that's the last thing i remembe remember. >> and now it's my privilege to introduce the publisher of "stars & stripes" who will say a few words, max letterer. max? [ applause ] >> thank you, pete. wow, this is very powerful. i think as you went through the exhibit, you feel how powerful it is to have an exhibit featuring the u.s. marines at the battle of hue during the tet offensive vietnam war in 1968 is unprecedented.
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it's a recognition of what's gone on in our past and how we honor it today. the images, as pete said, were taken by "stars & stripes" army photographer john olson, a young lad and proved he was capable and has proved that throughout his life. "stars & stripes" has been dedicated to telling the story of the u.s. military since the american civil war. our unique mission is an honor to perform, serving the men and women of our military by telling their story is a fulfilling mission and the most important story are the men and women at the tip of the spear. this is where "stars & stripes" staff excel as john did and where other media strive to achieve. 1968 was a watershed year for the united states, not just because of the battle of hue. reverend martin luther king, senator and presidential candidate bobby kennedy were assassinated. civil rights act of 1968 was passed, hoping the promise of fair housing. tet offensive was launched by the north vietnamese, resulting
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in the bloodiest year of the war and the bloodiest battle. the most significant battle was the battle of hue. john, "stars & stripes" photographer was operating with u.s. marines when they were attacked and chronicled the event. he still chronicles it today. we're here to help tell that story, as our mission always has been. his photos were published by "stars & stripes" and published by other organizations at the time, including "life" magazine. john's mosque, iconic photos resulted in john being honored with the award as the best photographic reporting from abroad, requiring exceptional courage and enterprise. as you go through this, you'll hear that john was there in the thick of the battle. that took a lot of courage to take the photos, chronicle the event, tell it and not lose his cool. the partnership between the newseum, john ol sochlt. n, "stars & stripes," national
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federation of the blind has culminated in this exhibit presented today, one of its only kind as peter mentioned. it includes a unique aspect of providing audio from the marines who lived through that horrific battle. the audio presentation combined with john's starting photography brings this unimaginable, brutal battle to life. thank you to john for his tireless efforts to continue to tell the story of the battle for 50 years. thank you to the newseum, national federation of blind and n nikon for recognizing the importance for continuing to tell this story. special thanks to kathy tross and the newseum staff allowing us to bring it to this great space. thank you to the united states marine for your bravery then, heroism and for continuing to tell your story today in a very private way and in very difficult moments. the exhibit is a tribute to them. all men and women who serve in uniform at the tip of the spear.
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i hope you have been enriched into the policeman and the exhibit i have the honor of introducing the president of the national federation of the blind and thank him for his sponsor of this exhibit. mark? [ applause ] >> thank you, max. it's a real privilege to be here, as the son of a vietnam veteran. it's a true honor to be here, representing the national federation of the blind for this historic moment, celebrating this historic battle and most certainly the brave soldiers who put themselves on the line for all of us. the members of the national federation of the blind especially are blinded veterans have supported this exhibit because we know that blindness is not the characteristic that
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defines you or your future. every day, we raise expectations for blind people because we recognize that low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams, that you can live the life you want and that blindness is not what holds you back. united states military personnel put themselves on the line so that all of us -- and i do emphasize all of us -- can live the lives we want. and part of that is to enjoy fully life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. and it is fitting that at this time, although in the sense of museums and accessibility, it's probably long overdue. but it's fitting that we are here together in this historic
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exhibit, that it has come to be reality and that the first photographic display in a major museum in the united states regarding accessibility for all is being sponsored by these great organizations and the national federation of the blind is pleased to be part of that. it is our hope that the other cultural and historic institutions will follow the great leadership of the newseum in creating exhibits for all and recognizing that designing for full participation enhances the experience for all. and if you've been through the exhibit or when you go through
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the exhibit, i think you will find that the nonvisual elements of this historic exhibit bring meaning beyond the thousand words that are attributed to the visual photographs. i like to say tonight we're bringing the next 2,000 words to these stories. we sponsor this exhibit to acknowledge and celebrate the great photographic and innovative work of john olson. and, most of all, the national federation of the blind has sponsored this exhibit out of gratitude and humility for those who took up the tet offensive and all the other efforts to protect our rights as americans, to enable us to live the lives we want. it's our honor to be here this
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evening. i like to thank all the other sponsors. our military personnel, the newseum for the great leadership in this effort. and it is our privilege to be here. i now would like to introduce another one of our sponsors this evening. i have the opportunity to invite to the podium mark steuben, the senior manager of professional services for nikon. mark? [ applause ] >> thank you. good evening. nikon is proud to bring a new vision to photography to everybody. again on behalf of nikon and professionals, thank you. enjoy the evening. we'll see you soon.
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>> now i would like to introduce mark bowden and our distinguished panel. please give them a warm welcome. >> all right. thank you all for coming tonight. as i heard in the introductions, i published a book recently about the battle of hue. and in reporting that book, i think both because i'm a journalist and also because i'm here at the newseum tonight, i should say i was every bit as interested in the coverage of the battle as i was in the battle itself.
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and as part of that work, i tracked down the journalists who were in the middle of this fi t fight. one of those who i collided with was john, john olson, in the middle of the battle and took what became some of the most famous images of the battle of hue. i thought we should start tonight since this is your exhibit, john. you said that you had embarked on this project in part because you were interested in filling some gaps in your own memory and understanding of what you've been through. i wonder if you could explain what you mean. >> well, you know, mark, my time in hue was unusual. i was the only combat photographer assigned to "stars & stripes." i was a u.s. army draftee.
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they gave me tremendous amount of freedom, let me go where i wanted to go and do what i wanted to do. and if you're a combat photographer, you can't fake it. you have to be in the middle of things. actually, the more dangerous, the better. shortly after tet occurred, i learned that the fighting in hue was vicious. it was house to house. and i went to hue. my story was a success story. i went into hue as a u.s. army draftee 4, came out of hue. my photographs were published by "stars & stripes" but were also an arrangement between the newspaper and other media, they were picked up by "life" magazine and published there. and through this extraordinary set of circumstances having gone into hue as an e-4 i came out of
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hue, not that much later, became the youngest staff photographer ever hired by the magazine, 21 years old. but i spent 40-plus years, like many veterans, not talking about vietnam. now, if you had asked me three years ago, did vietnam affect you, i would have said no, absolutely not. but as i got closer to the 50th anniversary, as it was approaching, i began to wonder what had happened to these 18, 19, 20-year-old marines that i had photographed in 1968. and through a combination of circumstances, i found one marine. or they found me. and that led to me thinking how powerful an historic document it
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would be if we could locate all of the marines i photographed and find a museum that could showcase the event. and as i began this process of interviewing the men, often i would go into an interview session and i would take my digital recorder and i would put it in front of the individual. and i would turn it on and i would ask one question. i would say, tell me about hue. and it was very common that that would be either the only question or one of very few questions i would ask. and for an hour, hour and a half, they would tell me how hue had affected them, how still
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nearly 50 years later it haunted them and how it had changed their lives. now, personally, as this process matured and as i began to listen to the hours of recordings, i would sit in front of my computer. now this is the individual who vietnam hadn't affected. and i would listen to these interviews and tears would start to roll down my face. now i haven't processed how this has affected me other than to share that with you and the audience this evening. >> well, it's an amazing exhibit. i think that the way you've put it together is a real contribution to our understanding of it. i think i'll go down to the end of the panel here. the highest-ranking member of the panel is colonel bob
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thompson at the end, who commanded the marines who fought in what was arguably the most difficult phase of taking back the city of hue. and colonel thompson, i wonder if you would tell us something about your experience in hue and what it's meant for you and the rest of your life and how you look back on it today. >> well, obviously the seminole point of my life. it was an unusual experience, to say the least. but i was blessed with about 500 or 600 wonderful, courageous
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marines. that made all the hardships worthwhile. i had officers like myron harrington, delta company and my horse, who i rode pretty hard for two weeks and for, what, six months after. and he always came through for me. and alvin, i never did know who that good-looking guy was who was laying on that tank.
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i don't think he's any better looking today than he was back then, but he's a great man. and all of my troops were. b bob, tom, little s man, who has his wonderful family here today. and the battle of hue city or the citadel was unique in a number of reasons. one, the citadel was never
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secured. and that's a primary recogniqui for combat in a built-up area. you have to isolate the objective area. that was never done. we had a horrible problem with resupply and evacuation of the dead and wounded. it was the monsoon season, misty rain every day, very low cloud cover, which eliminated most of the air support. and according to my battalion surgeon, a wonderful man, a number of our -- great number of our marines died because we
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couldn't evacuate them. three days, it was, we went without food. would you have thought all the troops were going to starve to death. well, it's just not right that we go fight to our death on an empty stomach. well, the problem was the first three days of the battle, i was so busy, i didn't eat my three days of rations. then when i got around to being hungry enough to eat them, everybody else didn't have any
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rations. so i thought about well, maybe i could go out in the middle of the night and hide and eat my rations. but i couldn't do that. so i gave my rations to my radio operators. so i went six days. it's a great diet program. it was a horrific battle eyeball to eyeball. what we really missed was the close support artillery. we didn't have that. we had eight inch and 155
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artillery in support and max range. now i would never consider -- and we were on the gun target line. i would never consider using 155 because it's a great scatter gun. 155 -- 108 inch was much more accurate but a big bullet. if it was placed in the wrong direction and our troops -- it would wipe out a platoon in a heartbeat. so that wasn't very much -- wasn't very useful. so we didn't really have much in the way of artillery.
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and from the time i assumed command of the battalion, which was the day after tet started, i was headed up to hue, i was briefed by task force x-ray and my commanding officer inside hue city on the sensitivity of the hue citadel in that it was a national treasure. and it was not to be destroyed. and when i talked to general
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tron, the army commander in the citadel, a division commander at the time he told me that we were not to use air support or artillery, blah, blah, blah, because of the sacred nature of the citadel. after the first day -- let me back up a minute. i was briefed by him that there was an army battalion occupying positions. so my plan was to move out, make
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contact with that battalion, pass through, deploy and attack. a company was in command. when they got to that position they were ambushed. there was no army battalion anywhere to be seen. within the first 20 or so minutes of the battle, a company had been pretty much decimated, chopped all to pieces. so it took the rest of that day to extract them, put them in reserve and redistribute our
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troops. delta company was not with me. they were over on the other side of the river. with 25 and 11. i called colonel hughes and said i've got to have my delta company. and i talked to the general and said i'm not moving my marines one step further until this rules of engagement are changed where we could use artillery, air support, whatever is available, we're going to use it. otherwise i'm not going to move. he acquiesced and say saed okay,
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do it. unfortunately, myron and his delta company arrived in a couple of days and i put them over on the left frank. >> colonel thompson if i could ask myron at this point, because he was commanding the company. as you heard colonel thompson explain, one of the towers guarding gates into and out of the citadel. if you can imagine it's something like out of game of thrones, 30-foot high stone walls, 30, 40 feet thick. the only way in and out was through a number of gates over a moat which ran all the way around it. and there was a major east/west road that cut through the eastern side of the citadel that
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was looming over which was the dong ba tower. as long as the enemy held that position at the top of the tower, they could fire down on the whole front line of the marine deployment. so, it was virtually impossible, as colonel thompson is saying, to move forward without taking the tower. and that fell -- that job fell to myron harrington's company. i wonder if you'll tell us something about that, myron. >> i would be delighted to, mark. that was a very interesting challenge not only to me but the marines of the delta company. i was extremely blessed to be the commander of delta company. it was a battle-hardened company with many veterans in it that had participated in operations during the summer and fall of 1967. i had been in country for over
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six months but i had only been with the company for about five days when the tet offensive started. so, there was a little getting to know you type situation there where i had to get to know them and they had to get to know me. unfortunately we highway couple of engagements going into hue where they demonstrated to me their professionalism and competence and i demonstrated to them i had some professionalism and competency and we got along very well. when we went into the citadel, it was a mess. i think colonel thompson captured it very nicely. the issue at hand, however, was as a commander, the first thing you want to do is be able to make a row con sans and get some sort of feel for what are your avenues of approach, what is the enemy dispositions, where are their machine guns located? what are your avenues you're going to be moving, using your
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supporting arms. a multitude of things you're thinking about to get ready for the battle. unfortunately because of the intensity of combat and the fire we were receiving, i was unable to make a reconnaissance. next morning when we moved into the attack i was strictly depending on the professionalism and competency of my marines in a tank that i had fortunately had supporting me that was right beside me to conduct the attack on the tower. it's one of those things where you winged it when you got up there. and once you got to where you could see what the objective was, then we formulated a strategy. the marines were a long legacy of 200 marine corps history. they weren't going to let it down. thanks to some of the folks that
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colonel thompson has mentioned and a multitude of others that are nameless, so to speak, we were able to take the tower. it took us most of the day to do it because we had to maneuver up and get into position where we could attack. we had to eliminate the mva directly in front of us, cross the street and do a flanking move as well. fortunately, we were able to get all that coordinate d in using limited support at that time. we were able to successfully take the tower and, i believe, there was something like 24, 25 mva that were in and around the tower that we eliminated. but as pointed out earlier, i think when colonel thompson said we were receiving fire from multiple locations. it wasn't just there on the tower. it was a multitude of mutually
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supporting fortified positions that had the place zeroed in. >> if you can imagine attacking uphill at this tower that had a commanding position. you actually had to take it twice in the same day? >> we did. we spent most of the day, as i said, maneuvering up there. about 1600 in the afternoon, we were in a position where we could amount the assault. unfortunately, at that time, bob toms and the remnants of second platoon showed up. he was our force multiplier. we were able to get on top of the tower and secure it. of course, the first thing you do is prepare for the counter attack. we did. we thought it would come within the next hour or so. much to our chagrin, it didn't come until 0400 in the morning. so, we had a rude awakening with the mva up on the tower again, firing down into our positions.
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so that was a mess as well. >> yeah. so you've heard sort of a description of this battle from command position from colonel thompson and from then captain harrington. as we all know, battles are actually fought by men who were out, getting shot at and shooting back. i found that many of those who i interviewed who fought in this battle were carried off of the battlefield at some point. you would have someone outlining a story to you and i would think, boy, this is somebody who has great memories of this and they've got a fabulous story to tell about the battle of hue and suddenly it would end. they were wound ed. probably the most famous marine carried off of the battlefield, in the battle of hue. i wonder if a.b. you could tell us a little bit of how you got
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that dubious distinction. thanks, john. >> the day i got shot, i got shot through the chest with an ak-47 round. that morning started off quite fun, you might say. we were sleeping that night in the house on the street. i didn't know anything about the tactics or anything else. i was just one of the guys. so, we got woken up that morning with a rocket round, came into the room where we was.
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i was with a machine gun team and everyone in the room got shrapnel from the rocket round except for me. i got busy taking the wounded out of the back of the house and it was pretty noisy and busy with lots of hand grenades, rocketfire, machine gunfire everywhere and it was real apparent we were getting hit very, very hard that morning. and it was just breaking day. and got to a point where i got the wounded out. and we were regrouping in the back of the house about two streets down. there was a lot of fighting going on and somebody was hollering for a machine gun. they needed a machine gun on the
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corner. i took the machine gun and started that way. and it was back and forth, running house to house. when i reached almost corner, the house next to the corner, and i about to run to the next house in the corner when i looked to the left and there was an nva soldier with a -- in a crouched position on a porch of the house next door. and i was looking right down the barrel of his weapon. and as soon as i saw that, i fell back into the door of the house i was at. and he shot the door all to pieces. i didn't get hit that time, but i got in that house and made my way to a window and was firing the machine gun out the window at lots of nva. it was what we called a target rich environment. there were plenty of targets out the window.
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and we had a lot of people down everywhere. one of the houses we had marines in, there were a lot of nva soldiers outside that house, around the outside of the house where marines were in the house. and i was firing the machine gun around the house on the outside of the house trying to knock down the nva and protect the marines in that house. when someone hollered cease fire, there aroma reens e marin that house. i tried to reason with him and tell him there are a lot of nva on the outside of the house, but there were plenty of other targets and nva to shoot at so we just kept it up for as long as we could and i stepped into the window to shoot the machine gun and got caught with an ak-47
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round in the chest and it knocked me backwards about ten feet, i guess, and i landed flat on my back and the only thing i could utter was, "i'm hit." i knew i was hit pretty bad. i didn't realize how bad at the time, but i knew it was pretty bad because of the circumstances that happened with it. it went through my right lung and i was having a hard time breathing. some of the guys that came to my assistance, came to my aid, they realized i had a sunk in chest wound. they had to make it easier for me to breathe so they took cellophane off of cigarette packs and poked it into the holes in the chest in my front
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and through the back where the bullet came out and tried to stop the air flow coming through those holes so that i could breathe through my one good lung. and bandaged me up and kept me laid on the right side so that my left lung wouldn't fell up with blood and drown me. and it was not too long after that i got the famous ride. >> so how long did it take you, a.b., to recover from that wound? >> i was in the hospital for about seven months and while i was in japan at the hospital recovering in japan, i caught typhoid fever before i ever got back to the states. i finally got out of the hospital in september and went back into the hospital again in december and was in another five months after that.
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so all together, it was right about a year. a little over a year. >> that battle lasted a year or more for you, right? at least. >> you talk about a diet. i weighed 165 pounds when i got shot and two months later in pensacola, i weighed 119 pounds. >> now we know who ate the goldfish. >> that's right. >> you know, the art of photography is largely being in the right place at the right time, and, you know, we've just heard a description of what some of the most intense days of fighting in the battle of hue. and, john, you were in the city for three days, was it? >> you know, for many years, i remember my time in hue as five days. i've since revised that and believe that i was in the fight for three of those five days. >> so how do you work? i mean, wouldn't you just jump on the first helicopter out
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under those circumstances? how do you function as a professional in that kind of environment? you're armed with a camera. >> right. you know, when i was a very young man, when i was 12 years old, i knew what i wanted my career to be. at that time, there was no -- there was no cable television, there was no 24/7 news cycle. there were, you know, three networks but there was "life" magazine. and "life" magazine used to arrive at our home every wednesday and i would look at that magazine and say, that's what i want to do. i wanted to be a world class photo journalist. what i didn't tell my father is i wanted to be a world class war photographer. so when vietnam came along, i was highly motivated. i wanted to be there badly. now, the army got me before i could get there on my own.
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i received my draft notice one day and 31 days later i was sworn in. but i was really fortunate. i got -- i had one of the best jobs i could ever have in vietnam in working for stars and stripes. and as i reflect back on it, i was a natural. it came to me so easily. being in that environment. and, you know, people -- people say to me, you know, you had to be incredibly brave to do that. and it's not true at all. i mean, in my case, i've explained bob toms was one. bob toms received six purple hearts in hue and the silver star. we went -- during the building of this exhibition, i went there
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for 18 hours to wasilla, alaska, to interview him. as we talked he said you must have been incredibly brave. i had to explain to him, no, not at all, i'm not a brave guy. i said, to be brave you need to have fear. and you need to overcome that fear. i said i just never had any fear. and through my entire time there, i don't recall having had fear. so it was intuitive, the image, in that regard, at that moment in my life as a war photographer, i was a natural. >> some of the most compelling images that you'll see in the exhibit of john's work were taken in the battle for the dong ba tower.
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journalism during the battle of hue, i think, played a tremendously important role because so much of what was being reported by photographers, cameramen, journalists writing stories from the scene contradicted the official account of what was going on. if you read what general westmoreland was saying about the battle of hue during these days, he was telling the public that -- and telling the president of the united states that not very much was going on, and, in fact, this i think arguably was the most significant single battle fought in the war. and that truth came through, i think, to the american people through those stories, through the photographs that john and others took, which showed a battle on the order of something you might have seen in europe during world war ii, which was
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completely different than the kind of war most americans thought was being fought in vietnam. so i wonder, carl thompson, did you have much interaction with journalists during the time that you were in hue? >> no. just one. one who worked with cbs. i'm trying to think of his name now. >> jack lawrence. >> yeah, jack lawrence. in fact, i still carry on an e-mail with jack lawrence. and he came back, he wrote the book "cat from hue."
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and he came back to be interviewed by brian whatever his name was about his book. so i had dinner with him that night. i came up to d.c. and had dinner with him. but that's the only one i really had any direct association with. now, several newsmen, i don't remember who they were, helped -- maybe it was with your company, myron, that helped evacuate some of the wounded and i went up to d.c. 8th and 9th
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marine corps parade where these gentleman, i think two of them. >> three. >> were awarded a bronze star. >> so, myron, do you remember -- i mean, you were -- obviously, john -- do you remember john in the middle of this? >> well, regrettably, i don't remember john. for whatever the reason, john didn't come over and introduce himself to me. i'm a very formal type. so i was waiting for that introduction. but i've got really strong memories of a number of journalists that were with me. the three that colonel thompson just mentioned where david green, charles moore, i believe, and al webb, and they demonstrated their bravery by helping evacuate some wounded and getting hit while they were doing it. but what impressed me about those three was that they stayed with us. they didn't come up on a hilo
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from siaigon -- one of them tha spend a few days was david mccollum. he had been in the congo. >> i think that's dan mccollum, right? >> don mccollum, yeah. >> don mccollum. >> he just became one of us during that period of time. and he, too, did remarkable things that went above and beyond taking photographs. he also went out, and i can remember specifically one night because we would go out and get the wounded at night so we could recover them. he went out with a group to help bring some wounded back. so i had some really good memories of the journalists that were with me, and they were reporting very accurately because they were on the ground, they saw what was happening,
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they were very descriptive about it but they were very truthful about it. again, unlike some who would just pop in and pop out and i really didn't have a whole lot of credibility with some of those guys. >> now, a.b., i know you didn't get a chance to meet any journalists but you became kind of inadvertently famous. in fact, john's photograph, which ran over two full fudges fudges -- pages on the inside of "life" magazine didn't name any of the people on that tank. can you tell us how you came to realize you had been made famous? >> when i was back in the hospital for the second time, i was in pensacola naval hospital recovering, and i had a former brother-in-law that lived in ft. walden beach, florida, and he was sitting in a barber shop to get a haircut and was having to wait for a chair and picked up a magazine to look at it, and it
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was "life" magazine and that picture was a two-fold pages, double page of that picture. and he recognized me immediately. and he brought the magazine to the hospital in pensacola and showed it to me. and that's been the start of it there. >> yeah. >> so that's how i found out about it, almost a year after he had taken the picture. >> right. and, john, had you had any of your photographs in "life" before the battle of hue? >> no, that was my first opportunity. >> and what did that -- what did that mean to you? when did you know that that was going to happen? >> well, i returned -- i returned to saigon, i went back to the bureau. some of the film, the black and white -- i shot both black and white and color because of this arrangement stars and stripes had made with other media, the
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black and white went to stars and stripes and the color went to "life." and soon thereafter, "life" advised me that they were running six pages. >> that has to be a big moment in the career of a -- somebody who had as an ambition -- >> yeah. it was huge. you know, within a matter of weeks, and i was still in army, of course. within a matter of weeks, they offered me a contract, and soon thereafter, still as a 21-year-old, they offered me a staff job. i won the robert kappa award that year and it changed my life. >> did you feel -- i'll ask one more question and then we'll be ready to take any questions if we have them from the audience. i believe there are microphones set up on both sides. but i wanted to ask you, colonel thompson, do you feel that the
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american public really understood what had happened in hue, in hue city or during the ted offensive? do you think you came -- when you returned to the united states that the significance of what you and your men had done and had gone through was appreciated and understood? >> i really don't know what the attitude of the american people was. and i really cared less. when i got -- i maintained command of the battalion until august. i had the battalion about seven months. when i came home to charlottesville, at that time i had been at the university of virginia as a marine officer instructor.
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i came down with malaria. and i was in the hospital for two weeks. and then after that, i took my family home to mississippi. a little town in mississippi. i was treated as a hero in mississippi. and then i -- when my love was up, i went off to thailand for two years. so i wasn't involved in all of the turmoil and the american public attitude and all of that stuff. all i knew was i was extremely
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fortunate to have commanded such men. like this fella here. and a bunch of others. leon, s. mann, prince, and self others that we were with today. so i -- that's my memory. >> mmm-hmm. >> and that's what i treasure. >> and, myron, how about you, did you feel that what you had been through was understood or -- >> my recollection market at that time was i think two things. one, and here's where i'll get a little bit critical. i think some of the reporting
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coming out of vietnam was distorted. it did not convey the actual facts of something that was happening on the ground, the success that we were having. i think there was that mass hysteria when the word got out that the embassy had been taken, and i think that set the stage that the reporting for the rest of tet was in the sky is falling chicken little type mode. so i think that was the first thing. and then the second thing that didn't help was when walter cronkite made his very astute statement there about how it was an unwinnable war, when the truth was we were winning the war. he conveyed to the american public that it was a lost cause. so i think that was detrimental to our cause over there. and then apropos the experience when i came home, i went right to a marine base, went to
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school, so i was isolated from the general public and the civil unrest that was going on. and then the marine corps in its wisdom gave me a hardship tour and sent me to australia. so for the next three years, we were out of the country with my family in australia and then following that, i went back to vietnam as an adviser with the vietnamese marines. during that hectic time of a lot of civil unrest, i was out of the country so i was immune to what was happening to some of the others of my generation. >> right. a.b., you and your friend enlisted enthusiastically. >> yes. >> to join the marines and go to war. was the experience what you expected? >> no. john had mentioned that you have to have fear to be brave. i must be very brave because i
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was scared to death. i was -- [ applause ] it was a very scary place. no, we enlisted together because we wanted to go together. to war together. my friend and i. and we knew we didn't have that opportunity with the army, there was a draft and they sent you where they wanted to and when they wanted to. the marine corps had a buddy program. we could enlist together and go through all of the training together and be sent to vietnam together and be in the same unit. didn't quite work out that way. surprise, right? but no fault of the marine corps, really. my friend's sister got in a really bad car wreck and she was put on -- she was -- didn't know
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whether she was going to make it or not and he had to go home for emergency leave for a couple of weeks and it put him behind me, but that was the plan for us to be together. in vietnam together. but it didn't quite work out. he wound up losing his life on may 28th, 1968 while i was in the hospital in pensacola. so i didn't see him any more after that point. >> and, john, after this experience, those photos in "life," you said you were -- "life" magazine hired you. you were the youngest staff writer and you worked there for many years. did you ever go back to a war zone? did you ever shoot combat photos again? >> you know, there were some really talented photographers in vietnam and most of them were
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there because they were addicted to it. it was the adrenaline, the living on the edge. i think i was different in one sense. i loved it. i wouldn't trade that time for anything. my time in vietnam made me who i am. since then, there has never been a -- the worst day of business as a civilian is a walk in the park. it puts everything into perspective. but to answer your question, i did go back to vietnam on one or two occasions working for "life." i'd identified one story that i thought was very relevant. i had a hard time selling it to the editors. i finally did and i went back. and the story that i had presented and eventually did was
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the -- we chose an individual, followed him for a period of time. he was an infantryman in the army. and then followed him back through his transition back into civilian life. and i was of the belief that this was a period in our country's history where that transition, where you came back as less than a hero and that it was not an easy transition. so i went back to do that. but my career as a war photographer was short lived. i went on to do many things and i came back at a time when there was a lot of unrest. "life" assigned me to the d.c. bureau. i worked the white house traveling with the president, but did all the other anti-war stories as well. so this was an incredible juxtaposition.
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>> and was there another moment, colonel thompson, in your military career that compares with your experience commanding troops in hue? >> heavens no. >> nothing like that? >> no, i was very fortunate. i had a rifle platoon in korea as a first lieutenant, i had two rifle companies. then i had another one at -- as a captain. i commanded a recruit training battalion. recruit training regiment. of course, you know an infantry
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battalion and an infantry regiment and nothing compared to those 12 days in hue. >> and, myron, you said you went back in served in vietnam after that tour. how about you? did you encounter any kind of experience that compares? >> obviously not. i was there at the end of the -- our major engagement late in '72, early '73 as an adviser with the vietnamese marines. and it was limited combat at that point. it was really kind of a waiting game for the peace talks to be concluded. so the intensity of the combat, though we were in combat, was not anywhere near what it was in hue. and probably the only other experience that i could equate from an emotional and mental
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toughness, so to speak, on my part was when the beirut explosion happened in 1983 and the unit -- the 24th amphibious unit was over there. the commander was relieved because of the investigation and everything. and i was given command of that unit and took them back to beirut. and that was not frightening, though we were ashore and we were guarding the embassies, but it was the mental and emotional strain of taking over that unit and going back with them as being, again, the new guy where the whole staff remained in place and i was the new guy. so that was a leadership challenge to ensure that we could be successful and i remember going up to see the commandant before we went over there and he said, colonel, he said the only thing i was is i want you to bring all of your marines back.
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i was blessed and i brought them all back so i was pleased with that. >> did you keep in touch with the men who served with you? in vietnam, you know, in the years right after the war? >> not right after the war. i think everybody was doing the thing, getting adjusted back to their community and their livelihood and i was finishing up my marine corps career. it wasn't until i think 1991 when they commissioned the "uss hue city" that we began to get together. from that point on there have been a number of battalion reunions and annually the "uss hue city" host a memorial service which i think they'll do in april of this year to honor those that fought and those who died in hue. so that's a very meaningful thing and probably somewhere between 70 to 100 veterans and their families show up for that. >> and was that true for you as
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well, a.b.? did you lose touch with the men you served with in hue? >> i did not. when i got back and got out of the hospital, i tried to assimilate myself back into society as well as possible and tried to forget and move on. it was a challenge, but i want to be viewed as most vietnam veterans were being viewed by the citizens of the country at that time, the uproar and the prejudicial attitude they had towards some of the vietnam veterans. so many of us, as well as myself, did not admit to the fact that we had even been to vietnam. we didn't want anyone to know because we didn't want anyone to
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have a predisposed idea of who you were or what you did before they even met you or knew you. so it was kind of an issue of we wanted to be normal again. >> right. >> so we tried to be normal and be like everyone else. >> what role has the internet played, do you think, in reestablishing connections between vietnam veterans? >> huge. it happened with myself. one day i was sitting on a back porch drinking coffee in the morning and i saw a post of that picture, the tank picture, on a facebook site called "together we served" and reading some of the comments, i saw some guy from california had posted, i'm the last guy sitting on the back of the tank.
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i messaged him back and told him that i was the guy laying down without a shirt. well, it was kind of surreal. he thought i was dead. i didn't know he was around. so we started messaging a little bit and then we exchanged phone numbers and talked and we were a little leery of one another because it had been 48 years. >> sure. >> and -- but we finally got together and he's here tonight as well. richard heel from california. >> richard, you're out there somewhere. [ applause ] >> we became friends and we still communicate with each other a lot now. >> colonel thompson, after this battle and after you served in vietnam, did the marine corps debrief you about your experiences there? did you do -- were you interviewed about your memories of the battle and the decisions that you made?
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>> no. >> so there was no official effort to remember exactly what happened? >> no. i had a friend, at least i thought he was a friend, at quantico who was responsible for recording these sort of things for the library. and he kept saying, bob, i've got to get you in for this. bob, i've got to get you in. but bob never was called in. but the thing that has bothered me most is the fact that our marine corps museum at quantico
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will not post john's pictures. i took the "life" magazine up with john's letter authorizing me, authorizing me and the museum to use the photographs. i took the curator, i guess that's her title, of the museum down to the hue exhibit, which is very weak, and it really doesn't tell the story of the battle of hue. and i saw her look at the -- these iconic pictures and looking at this crap that they had on the wall.
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and i thought i saw her say, oh, my god, we've got the wrong stuff up here. >> don't sugar coat it. >> but it never did happen. >> there he is sugar coating it again. [ laughter ] >> so i'm very thankful to the museum for honoring our battle and honoring john's iconic pictures and i'll very grateful. [ applause ] >> may i interject something? >> please. >> and i'm very grateful to my friend john olson. >> very kind. mark, i'd just like to interject something. when i set out to create this exhibit, i didn't have a home for it. i committed to this exhibit and there were a couple
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prerequisites. one was, the primary one was that we found a home for it that could get a significant exposure to the public. and i talked to -- tried to talk to a number of high-end museums in new york and in washington. and the moment senior leadership at the museum learned of this exhibit, they seized the opportunity. and they put together this exhibition in three months, not the usual year, and the team and the commitment behind that has been -- i couldn't ask for a better group together. but what's equally historic about this is the moment that i shared this -- the fact that we had found a home for it with the
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president of the national federation of the blind, i wanted to let him know about this and that there was going to be a tactile component to it where the blind community could enjoy it. he was ten miles down the road in the thought process. and he said, we've got to become a sponsor here. so we have this most unusual historic event, 50th anniversary of the tet offensive sponsored by a camera company, a great camera company, nikon. it's been an incredible team. as well as stars and stripes. >> if you would, john, just briefly describe the technology involved in making your photographs accessible to the -- >> late in my photographic career, i realized how critical photographs had been to my life. they gave me access to a world and people and places i never would have had before.
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i began to wonder what it was like for the blind community who didn't have that access. and nine years ago i set out to develop a means by which blind people could see art, could see photography and could acquire visual information. the president of the national federation of the blind, just like the marines did for me in hue, he found me in a little focus group in albany, new york, where i was trying to get feedback from the blind community and he said, you've got to come to baltimore. he said i think you've got something here. we sat down and formed a relationship where this technology has been built, not just by a sighted guy but by the input of a whole host of blind people whose goal it is to make a product that's not only conserved the blind community but the sighted community as well. >> oh, good. please.
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>> with the national federation of blind, first, i want to thank all of oh you for your service and all the vietnam vets in the audience for their service. [ applause ] you've covered a little bit in what you were just saying now. i was going to ask a little bit about what it means, especially to you, john olson, about the fact that you dedicated your life to making information available through photos, but that did not include blind people, and now the fact that you are doing that and not only doing that, but doing that with some of the most important photos or the most important photos that you've ever taken. one, i want to thank you and join the president in thanking you on behalf of all blind americans for making it possible for us to enjoy or to learn and -- seeing the photos upstairs is not something that i
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would quite enjoy, maybe, but it's so important to part of the mission that the first amendment. we need to have access to information. and whether it's -- whether it's either happy or sad information, it's critical that we have access to information. and you through your exhibit and the museum is making that possible so that we can learn the stories that we just heard so heartfelt, so emotional, so historically important. and i think it's so important that the audience -- i don't know if you want -- you told a little bit about that, but the two things together with the museum, with the first amendment theme is so incredible and i think the audience really appreciates it. and thank you on behalf of all blind people in this country. [ applause ] >> okay. think we've reached the end of our allotted time. i wanted to say that john was so helpful to me in researching and writing my book that he actually
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drove up to philadelphia to take the author photo for the book, which closes a neat circle. >> it does. >> the book in some ways was about what you were taking pictures of and the author photo was taken by john olson. thank you all for coming tonight. [ applause ] ♪ ♪
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